For the past few weeks, I’ve been laying fallow. Just sitting back and doing nothing.
Okay, not completely nothing. I still went about my business, consulting and designing for clients, but about a month, I have not blogged. I eased up from writing, I even eased up from personal development (more on that in another post).
And as weird as that can sometimes feel – not constantly creating and publishing, doing nothing and disconnecting from your usual patterns is an important part of the overall creative and living process.
There’s a farming practice dating back to ancient times of leaving a land fallow after years of cultivating and using it. You would work a piece of land for a while and then leave it alone to allow it to rest, recover, and replenish its nutrients. This gives the land the chance to bounce back and be as fertile as ever when you begin to farm again.
Like the seasons, like farming, we have similar rhythms and cycles.
We spend a ton of energy creating things – writing that book, curating that exhibition, making that movie, executing that project. This creative process takes a lot out of us. And once we are done, we take a break, we rest. Then we pick things up and begin again. Sort of like our 5 days of work and 2 days of weekend.
But sometimes, a little rest is not enough. Sometimes we need a vacation. Sometimes we have to pause,disconnect.
Sometimes we even have to lay fallow.
Where we deliberately refrain from creation. We allow ourselves the extended rest, the extended break. It might seem a bit counter intuitive. It might seem self-indulgent and lazy. But there is a space for this practice of doing nothing, and it comes with a couple of benefits.
It allows you to recover
Our world and culture is mostly of busyness, of always being ‘on’ and available. If we are not productive, we feel guilty. We feel the pressure (and material need) to always be doing, so we jump from thing to thing, from project to project often without being able to take the step back to even think.
The path to getting what you want is a marathon, a lifetime of work and creation, of battles and challenges to overcome. It takes a lot out of us.
We get tired, then fatigued, then we begin to burn out. But the show must go on. So, we keep at it. Soon, we hate the thing we have created, we despise the work we do, and we begin to rebel in small ways. We lash out, we turn to whatever coping mechanism appeals to us. We spiral.
Our creative well dries up, and we take damage, our bodies and minds battered over time in the bid to produce and create.
The art of doing nothing, of laying fallow is an important antidote and counter balance to this ‘always on’ culture. It allows us to truly disconnect. To actually rest. To allow the body and mind to repair itself. To re-embrace rituals. To heal.
It cultivates empty space
Laying fallow allows us to cultivate empty space. An increasingly important and useful thing in a world so full of stimuli.
Our days are usually noisy. There are things we have to do just to sustain life, errands and work to be done. And then there are the relationships to attend to, the requests, the messages, the noise of the world wanting or needing things from us.
Over time, this noise, the ever urgent din of the world around us crowds out the truly important things. Going the opposite way, taking a break, laying fallow allows us to recover from the noise and eliminate it. It allows us to return to a blank slate, to begin anew.
It allows us to be bored.
It gives us the permission to live, to move around, to do something different, out of the usual.
It is this space of nothingness, of absent-minded play that allows us to collect new material, new inspiration, new points of view to integrate into our next work.
It is the space that allows creativity to happen again.
It allows us to see again
The forest for the trees.
Active creativity requires complete immersion in whatever we are making. Our work, our lives become our whole world. We become like the fish who can’t see the water it is in.
Laying fallow gives us some much needed distance.
To reconsider. To appraise and judge our work, our efforts, even our goals.
The empty space we cultivate in the fallow period allows us to be even more deliberate. To put our efforts where they are most effective. To design our lives, routines and affairs more skilfully, so we can accomplish a whole lot more with much less.
There are insights and perceptive breaks that only occur in a relaxed state. In the space where we have let go of active work and our subconscious can drift.
It is the time where we can integrate the experience we just had, the results, the lessons learned. In the empty space, the fallow period, these things settle and forge the essence of our new transformed self.
Be fallow, not lazy
The concept of being fallow is not an excuse to be completely lazy. Otherwise our fields become permanently overrun with weeds and we never return to productivity.
While we rest, we must maintain a balance.
The point in being fallow is to do nothing for a while in a bid to recover, gain some perspective and new inspiration, not to let our creative muscles wither completely.
In this period, we may be at rest, but we still do drills, we still practice techniques, we still study. We explore.
Until finally we are ready…to begin again…
A new challenge rises up, a new idea takes a hold of us, a new curiosity…and then we dive back into the creative space, refreshed, replenished, reequipped and ready for the new adventure.
In my previous post, I wrote about failure, and having the most unproductive week ever. I had an embarrassing fall off my high horse and my routine and suffered for it. But I bounced back. Because the art of success is really about how you respond to failure.
There is something else I discovered in my week from hell. I wasn’t that stressed. And that is because I am presently pretty organised.
At any point in time, I can take a glance across 3 A4 sheets and a few post-it squares and I know exactly what’s on my plate, what needs to be done, who needs to be followed up with, what is urgent, what can wait, what’s important and so on.
When you are that organized, a bad week is manageable. Because even though you can’t go all out and crush the way you really want to, at least, you can handle the bare minimum. You can do what you need to do to keep everything humming along.
In each of the days where I was either running around, being too tired and sick, or having to devote a chunk of the day to meal prep, I was able to sneak in an hour to four of work. But because I am organized, I was effective, I knew what to focus on, and what could wait.
I also knew what to aim at. Everything I was doing was so that I could get back to routine and tackle a specific set of tasks on my list.
This is not just an idea that works well in managing your to-do list and general productivity. This is an underpinning idea behind successful businesses and organizations. Being organized is a superpower, and it has many other benefits other than capping the downside of a failure.
It gives you clarity
If you are organised in your business, you have clarity. You know who you are, what you do, what you should focus on, what your metrics are, what you need to be doing to get there. You simply just press play and follow the plan. A lot of stress in life and business comes from chaos and not knowing what to do. Being organised reduces all of that.
It helps you bounce back
Failure is inevitable. Even the best-laid plans go awry. But as long as it is not a catastrophic failure, when you get knocked off, and everything falls apart, to get back, all you have to do is consult the plan, adjust and continue where you left off.
It super charges your chase for success.
I’ve always been organized or at least fairly so. I can be quite OCD and I need everything to be just so. But it is one thing to be organized just because you like it, and then to be organized towards a goal.
If you have done the internal work of figuring out what you want, getting your mindset right and then building a plan to get it, setting up routines and being organized are the support structure and systems that put your efforts on automatic. All you have to do at that point is just ride the wave. Being organized is a huge leverage point that regularly gives exponential results.
It reduces cognitive load
Being organized allows you to build a second brain around you. You are able to outsource things to this second brain and free up mental bandwidth for what truly matters. You don’t have to spend energy remembering things when your calendar pings you at the right time. It is easier to work and remain in flow if all your tools are well placed within reach to facilitate the work. You don’t have to juggle things if they are well mapped out.
Like I said, I have always been somewhat organized and you probably have been too, but taking the time to fine-tune and improve those processes and tools can really be like strapping a rocket to your back and jetting off while providing a safety net for you to land on if anything goes wrong. Let it be a core tool in your journey to your success.
It was honestly quite embarrassing. I had just written a piece about the importance of routines and how they have helped me be consistent with blogging and a better creative as a whole, and then the very next week, I go on to blow that routine to smithereens and have an absolutely terrible week. Okay, I’m wildly exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad a week, I just felt very untethered for most of it.
I had failed. I failed my routine and I failed to post.
It is not ideal. But it’s okay. It is bound to happen from time to time.
On the road to success, failure is guaranteed. Your getting to the place you want to be, depends on how you react and deal with failure. Do you spiral down even further, or do you bounce back?
I had failed. What next?
A good strategist and executioner always plans contingencies. What happens when things don’t go your way? How do you recover? What do you do next? The answer for me was simple. And the answer was a question, a paraphrase of the focusing question from The One Thing.
What is the ONE most important thing for me to do right now that would make the most impact?
And in the stupor of my week, floating disconnected from my routine and usual momentum, I asked the question. On the day I was sick and tired, the most important thing to do was to get groceries done, it was simply all I had any energy for and what needed to be done. The next day, the most important thing to do was to do meal prep. And all of that was simply foundation, so I could wake up on the third day and get right to work and spend all day being productive like I wanted to.
It would have been easy to spiral, to feel anxious and guilty, to try to over compensate for the failure of routine by doubling down and pouring yourself back into the grind. But failure is a feature that can be used to improve routine because it is an invitation to pause and reflect, to recover and then improve.
If we design routines and rituals to control and direct the chaos of life, then we must also be aware of and prepare for the points of failure. So when you fail, you have the response mechanism to get you back on track.
But it is not just enough to bounce back. How far can you bounce back? Can you bounce back from failure better and more anti-fragile?
Failure is inevitable, but what matters more than the failure, is your response to it. The quicker you can bounce back, and the more you can milk that failure for all its worth, the faster you get back on to the road to success.
Failure is an opportunity to pause, reflect and recover. It is also an opportunity to learn. To figure out what went wrong, and to anticipate it the next time.
I fail at running my daily routine, so I execute this other small sub-routine (the focusing question) to get myself on track. I don’t just get back on track, I learn what went wrong, what to avoid the next time and how to improve my routines. I learn to regulate my energy and pay closer attention to my diet. I learn to manage expectations and protect sacred creation spaces. I learn how to increase my creative output. I return even better.
So, when you fall off the wagon, as we are all bound to, don’t beat yourself up. Take a breath, reset, learn, and do what you need to do to get back on track stronger than ever.
When you think about successful creatives or artists, you would probably conjure the image of weird people prone to flights of fancy, brilliant sure, but often capricious, unstable, or unreliable. You would imagine that they value large swatches of unstructured time and need complete freedom to be creative and do their work. You would probably think they wake up every day at different times to do different things. You would be very wrong.
About 2 years ago, I came across the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He compiled and highlighted the diverse rituals and routines of famous accomplished artists, scientists and philosophers. From Salvador Dali to Chris Ofili, they all had something in common apart from their great minds and accomplishments. They had their specific routines and rituals.
See, to be productive and successful, especially over a long period of time and consistently, you cannot just rely on inspiration or on the ‘feeling’. The creative muse is notoriously fickle. You have to embrace structure. It is that structure that ultimately frees you to be creative, to explore vast ideas and birth something new.
Like all things in the universe, it’s a delicate dance of opposites.
The creative muse is be balanced and even enhanced by routine. As individuals, doubly so as creatives, we are faced with chaos on a daily basis. There is the noise within – the voices in our head, our anxieties and hopes and fears. And there is the noise without – society, traffic, bosses, clients, the needs and requests from family. There is a lot that can derail your work and path. Routines and rituals become the guards that protect it.
Routines and rituals do two main things. They provide and defend the time needed to do the work, and they provide the right conditions to do good work. They direct the chaos of the day, the chaos of the mind and set them across well-defined paths every day. It is the only way to get any real work consistently done over time and move towards accomplishing your goals and maximizing your potential.
I have been telling people lately, that if you want to embark on a creative project, like doing podcasts, writing a book, or working on a business – you have to bake in the process into your daily life. You have to create a routine for it. Otherwise, it will never get done. What is not scheduled, does not happen.
For instance, I generally write my blog posts on Sunday. It is part of my ritual to prep for the week. It usually follows a set pattern. I sit down at my desk, I meditate for 15 mins, then I journal, mind dumping whatever is going on upstairs, and only then am I clear enough to write something. Afterwards, I plan my week and get into some work.
Of course, many times, for whatever reason, that does not happen. Some Sundays, I’m out with friends or doing something else. But I still have to execute the ritual when I can, on a Monday or Tuesday morning, whenever I do get the chance to get it done. The point is, the ritual facilitates production. It gives me a set time to work and provides the conditions necessary for good creative work.
The idea of ritual shows up everywhere, even in doing the work itself. To be effective at designing and solving problems, I have to use certain patterns. I follow processes, either documented or subconsciously. I dig into the issue at hand first, letting it fill my mind. Then I have to explore ideas and look at incredible work by others to prime my mind. Then I sketch and design and test till I get something. And I need to have the phone off for hours sometimes just to really get that focus and enter the right zone to produce good work. If I disrespect any of these conditions, the work suffers.
Routines and rituals go a long way.
It is how we trust the process.
It is how we get what we want, how we maximize our potential. It is where living intentionally really becomes tangible in your life. By designing your life in line with your goals. Putting in the conditions and systems to make it work. You focus on winning the day-to-day. Because if you win at executing the most important thing on a daily basis, over time the actions compound to deliver you great wins.
Your routine would look very different from mine. We all have what works for us. In Mason’s book, the routines of artists varied wildly. Some woke up nice and early starting work at 9am like Chris Ofili, others like Pablo Picasso could not be bothered before 2pm. The point is, they found a rhythm that worked for them and maximized their creative output.
However you do it, start right and end right.
We all have the same 24 hours, beginning our days at some point, and ending them at another. In the time between waking and sleeping, we have things to do, obligations to fulfil and projects to execute. If we want to crush it. We have to pay attention to how we start and how we end. A good morning routine sets the pace for the day. A good wind-down routine at the end of the day helps us get a good night sleep and start the next day on the right note. With those two things created and applied consistently, we supercharge our lives, our creativity and productivity. A good routine takes care of the important little things – a noisy mind, unclear focus, eating, etc and allows us to focus on actually doing the work.
A week and a half ago, I was in a deep funk, like I mentioned to my email list. For whatever reason, I entered a dark place, feeling unbalanced, feeling doubtful. Until I came across this video, and had two epiphanies – one, I am not my mind, which is a topic for another day, and two, I should get back to some kind of routine. So, the next day, I woke up, I exercised, I meditated, I visualized, I journaled, and went on to have a very productive day. Like magic, the darkness lifted.
Turns out, all I needed was to get back into rhythm. That’s the power of a good routine.
Another meditation on the process and experience of getting things done.
The last stretch of any serious project is usually the most grueling part of the whole ordeal. It is almost like birthing. The bulk of it has a lot of work sure – conceptualizing, designing and building, but that last bit, getting it across the finishing line, is super intense.
That’s when emotions are at an all-time high. You are tired from all the work so far. At this point, you doubt the validity of the entire project. On one hand, you wonder if you have wasted all your time and effort to get here. On the other, you just want to finish the damn thing and get it out your sight.
But if in the midst of all that strain and pressure, you are still here, still in the game, then you know you have yourself a winner. You love what you do, so much so that you are willing to embrace a high level of suffering and anguish just to get it done.
There is a key thing about getting things done that is important to note. This is especially true if you are working strategically. There is a lag time between effort and results. In a world, where we expect everything with microwave immediacy, this can be jarring. We expect everything fast; the lag violates that expectation.
If you are building something important, especially if you are still in the early-ish stages, there is a lag time that you have to be patient with. You need to be patient and disciplined.
If you are working with intention, you have identified a ginormous goal, something you are working towards. You have also looked at the short term and figured out what the next most important thing to do is.
So, you are working on it and pushing. Especially if it is product development – writing a book, creating a course, designing clothing, designing a business, creating a website, it’s a lot of work upfront. And while you are making the thing, you are getting no feedback from the market place beyond whatever testing you are doing. There is no validation, no emotional boost from likes on Instagram. It is just pure grunt work.
It takes discipline to keep pushing and working on it for weeks, months, even years without tangible results. It takes discipline to push and get the important things done, knowing that you might only see the impact in a year or in the next 5. But that is the core of true strategic intent and level-headed execution. Doing things now that will pay off much later.
The lag is also a call to be clear-headed and practice accurate attribution. Know where your results are coming from.
Where you are right now is as a result of the choices and actions you took years ago. From the habits to the results in your life, the place you live, the job you have, and the money you make. To move yourself to a new place, you have to invest in new actions and habits now. But for the change to be visible, it will take time and you have to be prepared for that.
It is in the lag that people lose heart and quit. In the lag all you have is the work, and your dream. You look around and people seem to be moving on without you. While you toil and labor away in obscurity to create your vision. Seth Godin also refers to it as the dip – the chasm between the start and finish of a project, the valley that separates those serious about achieving the goal, and those who are mildly interested.
The lag does not mean you are failing. The lag means your reality is still catching up with all the changes and actions you are making. You have to stay strong, you have to stay the course and keep pushing. But how do you know the difference between lag and actual failure? Maybe the fact that nothing is happening really means that your project, vehicle, business is not adequate to get you where you want to go.
You don’t. It is a tricky thing to figure out, but there are ways to mitigate the risk.
Because there is a lag time from effort to results, there is something I like to do in designing the projects I work on. When I take on a project, I set intentions for both the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario. I design it so that if it works out really well, the potential upside is very high. Which is why exercising leverage by working on important projects is key. A successful one can literally change your life. But I always like to bake in success into the failure scenario too. Even if this project fails, I have most likely used it also to gain new skills, new knowledge, new network, new insight.
I have been spending the past few months working on the next level of my business, and I have spent time designing the website, designing the way the company functions and learning so many new things about customer research, product development, communications, hiring, business plans, investments, and so on. It has been a long road so far, and an even longer road ahead. But here’s the thing about this exercise. Even if I launched everything the way I have been planning and it fails epically, I would have still gained a lot from the process. I would have learned more about business than I would have otherwise.
But if I succeed, I win big. All the planning and set up lays the foundation for explosive and exponential results. Because once the lag has passed and the results start coming in. They come in fast!
This is why we focus on the process. Because that is what this is. A process. Getting successful is a process, staying successful is a process. The process is all we have, not the results. So, we mind the lag. We recognize it, but we stay focused on the day-to-day, on creating the plan, executing the plan, recording the results, adjusting the plan, executing again, reviewing the results, ad infinitum, until we get what we want, maximize our potential, or run out of time.
We don’t know how long this will take. We don’t care. All we care about is handling today’s task. This is a lifestyle now, this is just how we do. And it is what we will do, till we are past the lag and the harvest comes.
There is a famous line in the 1999 cult classic Fight Club
The things you own end up owning you.
And I’m reminded of it every time I look at my phone. Now, it is one of the greatest tools we have ever created. At any point in time, I am connected to a vast network of human knowledge. I have the potential to reach out to almost anyone in the world or even to reach a large number of people at once. It is an incredibly useful tool.
But instead, most of the time I am held hostage by it. I pick up my phone up to 150 times a day. That’s an incredible amount of time. I’m a bit better, over the years I have slowed down my use of Twitter, Facebook…Instagram I’ve mostly hated for a long time, so I generally use that once a week. My attention now is consumed mostly by WhatsApp, I spend a lot of time chatting to my friends.
My eyes are almost always glued to my screen, and I’m not the only one, I look around and everyone is pressing, tapping or swiping. This is nothing new, many have been wailing about this phenomenon, the way technology hijacks our attention and exploits our evolutionary weaknesses and needs. We are hit with so many things every minute, it is much harder for us to sustain our attention on anything. Distraction is only a swipe and a tap away and we are forever fiending for a fix.
We think we use our phones, but really, they use us. They follow us, they stalk us, they market to us. All these apps and social networks take our attention, condition our behavior, generate and map out our data, they eventually end up knowing more about us than we do about ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari highlights in his book ’21 Lessons for the 21stCentury’, we are now the ones being hacked by big corporates and technologies.
Before, we hacked technologies and networks, now humans are the ones being hacked. These technologies and algorithms understand us better and better, from our location, to our searches, to our health tracking data, it is becoming easier and easier to nudge us in directions without our conscious knowledge. In a world evolving faster and faster, we are increasingly vulnerable.
I was listening to a Gary Vee interview a few weeks back, and someone asked him who the best people in the social media game were, who was doing the marketing right. And for about 30 seconds, he couldn’t come up with one name, and he said the reason he could not actually point to anyone was because he actually consumes no one. Think about that, one of the biggest names right now in the world of entrepreneurship, famous for the sheer volume of content he puts out (100 pieces per day), and his insistence on the underpriced nature of most social platforms, does not consume social media. Mind blown.
What does he consume? He consumes the comment section of his content, he engages with his people and learns what they are thinking and feeling, or he consumes the comment sections of the biggest things in the world trying to place a finger on the pulse of the current zeitgeist.
That is a massive and powerful mental shift. And something I heard echoed again in The Order of Man podcast with Tyler Harris yesterday. Producers are usually too busy producing to consume content mindlessly. And that is something you can do to shift the control back to yourself. These tools are massively powerful. You have access to a potential audience, you have access to knowledge, you can create and build almost anything by reading the books, watching the tutorials, listening to the podcasts, it is an incredible time to be alive, if you actually take advantage of it. Become a producer, be active, build something, give value, make content, do things, and you will have less toleration for random consumption.
I have seen it happen in my life. I mentioned earlier how much I reach for my phone, I know people who reach for their phones even more. I’ve noticed my time reduce drastically on social media over the years the more I follow my path, the more I make content, the more I learn and execute around my business. The more I learn and create, the more I want to learn and create, and the less time or inclination I have to be swallowed up in the machine.
The sentiments have been echoed by many writers and thinkers. Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’ advocates the ability to turn everything off and focus deeply on solving a meaningful problem. I wrote a post almost a year ago on why ‘Airplane Mode’ is one of the greatest productivity hacks.
In addition to this, you can practice more mindfulness. Don’t touch your phone for the first hour after you wake up. Do something else, read, meditate, exercise, eat, or just stare at the ceiling, you will be bored to tears, but you won’t die. Wean yourself off the addiction to your phone and reclaim your power and your attention. Then deploy it towards that which is truly important to you. It will transform your life.